On Thursday, Russian President authorized on what he called a “special military operations” into the Donbass region of Ukraine triggering the highest ever US-Russia tensions since the cold war.
Putin ordered the deployment of the Russian military into Ukraine despite US President Joe Biden’s threats to impose the harshest sanctions on Russia, despite his best efforts to galvanize U.S. allies into a united front, despite supplying weapons to Ukraine more than any other American before him and despite beefing up U.S. forces on NATO’s eastern flank as reassurance of his commitment to Ukraine.
As of now, the immediate scope of the Russian offensive is not clear. Several parts of Ukraine were subject to missile attacks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy saying Russia had carried out missile strikes on military infrastructure.
For the Biden Administration, the development marks yet another remarkable set back to its foreign policy initiatives. Western officials worry that the Russian military operation could spiral into one of Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the Second World War. What is clear so that is that it will have profound implications for his political fortunes as well as how the rest of the world views US leadership.
Although Biden has vowed that the United States and its allies would respond decisively to Russia’s would respond decisively to Russia’s “unprovoked and unjustified attack”, he also made it clear that Washington will not put boots on the ground, but will instead help Ukraine defend itself.
That policy has not paid rich dividends though. His preference for diplomacy and sanctions underscore scant American appetite for military intervention after the Iraq and the Afghanistan fiascos.
Putin may have calculated that he has an advantage knowing that the Biden Administration would not go to war against a nuclear power, especially with one it does not share a border with and with which it has no defense agreement, unlike Taiwan.
Rather than taking Moscow head on, Biden focused on coordinating with Washington’s NATO allies, especially those who were worried about the spillover of Russian military action on Ukraine’s borders.
Biden’s strategy lay in issuing predictions of an imminent invasion to showcase to his Russian counterpart that he knew what Putin was upto. As it turned out, these warning shots failed to ward off Putin from commanding his troops to invade Ukraine.
On February 21, after Putin formally recognized the two Ukrainian provinces controlled by separatists as independent, Biden issued Washington’s initial round of sanctions which yet again failed to ward off the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
While a senior European diplomat described Biden’s consultations with allies as being “exemplary,” in a contrast to its disorganized withdrawal from Afghanistan, many analysts have questioned the efficacy of deploying a few additional thousand U.S. troops to Germany, Poland and Romania as being insufficient suggesting that the Biden Administration should have done a lot more to maintain a credible military deterrent.
“One of the shortcomings is the deterrence package that we’ve developed is kind of asymmetrical in that it’s mostly economic and we’re facing a military threat,” said Ian Kelly, a former U.S. ambassador to the OSCE and Georgia.
He went on to add, Biden could have activated NATO’s Response Force and sent it to Poland and Baltic states with the message, “You have massed troops on your border. We’re massing troops on our border; we’ll withdraw when you withdraw.”
According to US officials, sanctions imposed on the first round against Russia could spur higher oil prices, and fuel inflation.
It remains to be seen whether sanctions will get Putin to back down.
While the decision of the Biden Administration to declassify intelligence surrounding what it alleged were Russian plots to fabricate pretexts for invading Ukraine was useful in countering Russian disinformation, but the strategy was somewhat of a lame duck after some commentators recalled US intelligence claims that was used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq which turned out to be false.
China and Taiwan
The Biden Administration’s feeble response vis-à-vis Ukraine could have repercussions for U.S.-China relations. There are strong concerns that Biden appeared to be too soft on Moscow, which China could take advantage of to invade Taiwan, as it has often threatened to do.
Russia’s defiance could also provide Republicans a cudgel to use against Democrats in the upcoming mid-term congressional elections in November, which will decide the balance of power in Washington.
What is clear is that Biden’s strategy leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine will come under close scrutiny as he charts the way forward.